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What Does Freedom Mean To Students In India Today?

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I look outside today and find cars, totos (e-rickshaws), bikes, autos and everything mobile and stationary holding a national flag. It’s the 72nd Independence day, and my WhatsApp is spammed with wishes from people I had forgotten ever existed in my contacts list. Everybody is sharing the invigorating spirit of ‘nationalism’ by posting selfies in traditional clothes saluting their front cameras (don’t judge). Swiping my way through these, I wonder what does the word ‘freedom’ mean for Indians today? There couldn’t be a better day to discuss such a profound question than today. Let’s not question but ruminate over the invigorating exhilaration that we’re all feeling and put it to some good use.

Recently, a friend of mine from the North East was accused of being an ‘anti-national’ (first of all, wake up people, the current word is ‘urban naxals’) for speaking in her mother tongue in the metro. She was having a discussion with her friend about something and she happened to mention India twice or thrice. This infuriated an ‘aunty national’ in the women’s coach who without understanding what my friend was talking about started shouting at her and said: “tum mere India ke bare mein kuch nai bol sakti,” (you can’t say anything about my India) because, obviously, copyright issues. India is only for people who ‘look’ like Indians. Sharing this incident Bipasha Deroi, a student of Delhi University said: “Even after 71 years of freedom, we’re still discriminated against on the basis of our looks, the language we speak in, and our region. This Independence day I would seek for the freedom of expression of one’s culture, a freedom where our languages are not termed as ‘weird’ or ‘anti-national’.”

Seventy-one years of India’s freedom has also been 71 years of democracy in India, but has it really? Arundhati Roy in the context of American elections had said that choosing a leader is like choosing between two detergents, we are made to think we’re choosing but we are actually not. This is true for elections in India as well be it at the national, state, local or college level. Speaking about elections in Delhi University, Anushka, a 3rd-year student of B.A program said: “I think we still lack the freedom to make free choices. Take the DU elections as an example, even though I know we are free to vote anybody we like and there is secret ballot but still, many students are coerced and that goes unnoticed and is never discussed. For us, elections are still just about winning and victory is for the one who manages the most number of big posters or free pizzas for students.”

Reservations have been the general candidate’s ‘biggest’ problem. With 71 years of freedom and democracy, we’ve also roughly had more than six decades of reservations that many think is not necessary anymore or should be done away with. The problem, however, is not reservations, the problem is the way we look at reservations. And the politics is too complicated to sum up in a paragraph, but the hypocrisy of people is starkly visible when women in women’s coach complain about the job or college they couldn’t get in because of reservations. Aditi Singh, a student of Political Science from Ramjas College says, “We are celebrating this Independence day as Indians, but this identity is not enough to live in India. We still see people as Brahmins, as Dalits and feel the need to know their caste before any further close interactions. India is free and so is every casteist in India.”

Does everyone have the equal right to love whoever they want to? When asked about what freedom means to her, Shagun Handa, a student of Miranda House said, “Freedom is anything as small as being able to choose your partner and as big as being able to tick the ‘other’ option in the gender list on an official form.” It’s high time that section 377 dies. Baphira Shylla, a student of English Honours from Miranda House says, “I just want to feel safe, man. Walking the streets and not feel conscious about myself.” After pushing aside the ‘farcical’ report and declaring India to be safe for women, our politicians have done a great job of dealing with such concerns, but maybe we need to do a little more.

We have new definitions of freedom because our problems have evolved. While we should celebrate Independence day with delight, we must also not be disillusioned by the fact that the freedom of the nation is the same as the freedom of an individual. We have students being shot at, couples being beaten, and freedom of speech curtailed. Questioning the problems of your nation, speaking out against discrimination, criticizing what you feel is unfair does not make you any less of a nationalist or any more of an ‘anti-national’. Let’s be patriotic but let’s not impose our definition of patriotism on everybody.

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Image source: Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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